Russians, be horrified at yourselves!


Russia’s problems are many and varied – low life expectancy and falling population figures, soaring rates for crime, alcoholism and drug abuse, not to mention ubiquitous corruption. In a country rich in natural resources, half the population lives in poverty. Andrei Konchalovsky takes us through the horrifying facts and figures and argues that things can only change when Russians themselves learn to be horrified by them.

Andrei Konchalovsky
9 March 2012

I chose my title for a reason. There’s a famous saying by Marx, that ‘to inspire courage in a nation, you have to make them horrified at themselves’.

For many years now I have been appealing to my fellow-Russians to be horrified by many facts and conditions of Russian life, in order to gain courage and the desire to desire. To desire to change oneself and the life around oneself.

I have long since been dismissed as a Russophobe who holds his people in contempt. That is nonsense – if it were the case then you could apply the name of Russophobe  to Chekhov, Gorky, Herzen and Chaadayev – great Russians who wished to awake Russia from its sleep, and not just constantly find others to blame for its own woes.

The Russian people are not a corpse, to be spoken only good of. They are a living people, full of energy and talent, who have just not yet completed the historical journey that leads to wellbeing and success for each individual. So let’s look for a moment at what is horrific in Russian life today. And anyone who wants to hear good things about themselves can go and read President Medvedev’s speeches or Afanasyev’s folk tales.

Life expectancy and population loss

Today I would like to remind you of a few startling facts and figures showing that according to many social indicators Russia is on a par not with Europe and not even with Asia – in terms of levels of corruption, life expectancy, investment in science etc. we are comparable to Africa!

‘The figures for suicide, poisoning, murder and accidental deaths in Russia are comparable with death rates in Angola and Burundi.’

I will go further and say that it is not we that should feel insulted by such a comparison, but the Africans. They at least have an explanation for their lack of development: they had four centuries of exploitation and extermination by racists and colonisers, whereas over the last three centuries who colonised us Russians and treated us with contempt but ourselves?

We often ignore statistics, and it is true that it can be difficult to grasp the reality behind dry figures. But the scale of the tragedy being played out in our country is so great that I urge you to give it your full attention.


Museums of Russian vodka seen throughout Russia convey a simple message: drink and have fun. Yet alcoholism has remained one of Russia’s major social problems. With consumption of 15 litres of pure alcohol per head, millions of Russians ruin their health and die early (photo: flickr.com, jimjimovich's photostream).

Russia’s death rate: the last 20 years saw the deaths of more than seven million Russians. This converts to a death rate 50% higher than in Brazil and Turkey, and several times the rate for Europe.

In terms of population, Russia loses each year the equivalent of a district similar to  Pskov, or a city the size of Krasnodar.

The figures for suicide, poisoning, murder and accidental deaths in Russia are comparable with death rates in Angola and Burundi.

Global tables of male life expectancy put Russia in about the 160th place, below Bangladesh.

Russia has the highest rate of absolute population loss in the world.

According to UN estimates, the population of Russia will fall from its present 140 million to 121-136 million by 2025. 

The family in crisis

Other statistics reflect the crisis of the family in Russia. Eight out of ten elderly people in residential care have relatives who could support them. Nevertheless they are sent off to care homes.

Between two and five million kids live on our streets (after World War Two the figure was around 700,000). In China, a country with a population of 1.4 billion, there are only 200, 000 homeless children – 100 times less. That’s how important children are to the Chinese! And surely the welfare of children and the elderly is the foundation of a healthy nation.

Eighty percent of children in care in Russia have living parents. But they are being looked after by the state!  

We head the world for the number of children abandoned by their parents.

All these figures bear witness to the erosion of the family in this country.

Crime and corruption

Crimes against children: according to data published by the Russian Federation Investigative Commission, in 2010 there were 100,000 child victims of crime, of whom 1700 were raped and murdered (theses figures are higher even than those for South Africa). 

'Four or five children are murdered in Russia every day'

This means that four or five children are murdered in Russia every day.

In 2010, 9500 sexual offences were committed against underage victims, including 2600 rapes and 3600 cases of non-violent sexual relations (the last eight years have seen a twentyfold rise in sexual crime). Only South Africa has a higher rate of such crimes.

Drug addiction and alcoholism. Thirty thousand Russians, equivalent to the population of a small town, die annually from drug overdoses. 

Seventy thousand Russians drink themselves to death each year.

According to WHO statistics, Russia gets through the annual equivalent of 15 litres of pure alcohol per head of population. And bear in mind the fact that alcohol consumption of more than eight litres per annum per head of population constitutes a threat to a nation’s survival.

Corruption: the scale of bribery in Russia has increased tenfold, and the goings on in a London court battle between two oligarchs have made us the laughing stock of the global business world.  The impunity of our judicial system is such that a criminal charge has been instigated against Sergey Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison in 2009. In Europe such a thing last happened in the 17th century!

Russia comes out as one of the world’s most corrupt places (154th out of 178 countries) in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Index, where it is listed next to Guinea-Bissau and Kenya.

Looking at all these figures one can safely talk of a decline in national morality – and it is our rulers who are ultimately responsible for this state of affairs.

‘It is shameful that in a country with such rich natural and aquatic resources over 50% of the population should be classified as poor.’

And now, did you know that:

-       in the last 10 years 11,000 villages and 290 towns have disappeared in Siberia;

-       average population density in Siberia and the Russian Far East is two people per square kilometre;

-       average population density in Russia’s central regions is 46 people per square kilometre;

-       average population density in China is 140 people per square kilometre;

-       average population density in Japan is 338 people per square kilometre?

It is shameful that in a country with such rich natural and aquatic resources over 50% of the population should be classified as poor.

All these figures send me into a state of shock. I am sure that all the facts are known to Putin. I wonder what effect they have on him.

And it will only get worse...

The tragedy is that I believe things will only get worse; we still haven’t touched bottom, and the Russian people has still not reached the stage where it can feel horrified at itself and finally gain the courage to ask ‘Where are we living?’. We no longer notice the stink in hallways and public toilets. We are used to people being murdered around us. We are accustomed to the fact that people all over Russia are literally fighting for their lives.

Journalist Anatoly Yermolin was born in Kushevskaya, a village in Southern Russia which was the scene of a mass murder in 2010. He wrote of this incident: ‘If twelve people hadn’t been murdered in one go, if there had been five incidents with two people killed in each, no one would have paid any attention to it, as is normally the case in our country’. But surely it is obvious that Kushevskaya doesn’t just belong to the Krasnodar region – it’s part of Russia as a whole! Local mafia boss (and district councillor) Sergey Tsapok and his gangsters are the people you put into power by voting for them at local elections! Everybody everywhere knows who the local hard man is, who has connections with the police and the prosecutor’s office.

The Kremlin is only pretending to fight corruption when it sacks Interior Ministry generals and middle level bureaucrats by the dozen. In the old days they would have been shot – now they get to spend a ‘well-earned retirement’ in Dubai or the Cote d’Azur!  Do our rulers really believe that is the way to end corruption? But then you all elect to your local council candidates with the words ‘I am a thief’ branded on their foreheads, and then wonder why corruption rules!

‘Russia today is facing a demographic and moral catastrophe, the like of which it has never seen before.’

I wonder: will it take the extinction of half the nation and the shrinkage of Russia to the Urals, for the people (that is, the mass of the population, not a tiny group of thinking people) to wake up and demand of their rulers not pleasant, reassuring news stories and the usual promises, but the truth, and in the first place an admission of how bad things are.

That, as you may remember, was what Stalin was forced to do in the face of a German invasion in 1941.

It is also what Khrushchev was forced to do in 1956, when the Bolsheviks realised they might be called to account for decades of terror.

Russia today is facing a demographic and moral catastrophe, the like of which it has never seen before.  

There are many reasons for this, the chief one being the irresponsible economic policies of the 1990s that overwhelmed people accustomed to feudal rule, without any experience of either private property or capitalism, and who in seventy years of Soviet rule had lost any potential entrepreneurial spirit.

So what is to be done?

As the writer and cultural commentator Mikhail Berg has written (I quote from memory): ‘We live in one country, but we are two nations. There is a tiny handful of thinking people who demand freedom and fair elections, and the enormous ‘slumbering’ mass of ‘ordinary’ Russians. And between them lies a huge gulf of fear, fear of the most acute and dangerous kind, and social distrust…We can fight the ‘party of swindlers and thieves’, we can blame the Russian bureaucratic mindset that has messed up the whole of Russian history, but we can’t escape the fact that a definite majority of the Russian population has not changed its basic mentality for centuries.’ And I would add to that - your oppressors come from your own ranks.


Homelessness and juvenile crime have remained serious problems in Russia. Pictured is a Russian youth detention center in a remote part of the Urals. The boys, many under 12, are doing time for crimes. Mostly they are there for thieving, but there are a fair number of murderers too (from ‘Alone in four walls’, a documentary film directed by German filmmaker Alexandra Westmeier).

So I don’t know what is to be done, apart from trying to shake people up and make them horrified at themselves. Yulia Latynina thinks me not only a pessimist, but a de-motivator. I think one can motivate someone who is conscious and wants to be saved. But what if he is unconscious or in a lethargic doze? Sometimes, to bring someone round, a doctor will slap their cheeks. 

I know what you will say to that, but I know that if a third of the people who will read these words agree with me, Russia would be a different place.

‘I don’t know whether Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has it in him to proclaim the equality of all before the law. If he does have it in him, he will win himself a prominent place in the Pantheon of Russian history. If not…’

I am convinced that Russia needs a leader with the daring of Peter the Great, who would tell people things they haven’t heard for a long time. The truth will be bitter, for it is difficult to accept that the reason why Russia cannot move forward is because it doesn’t want to admit to itself how far it lags behind Europe in terms of developed civilisation. Only a clear and inspiring message - let it be harsh, so long as it is invigorating and sincere - can provide an impetus for the nation to awake from its feudal torpor.

Only if that happens can one hope that the nation’s instinctive wisdom will prompt it to take the hard and possibly unforgiving road which is the only way to drag our country out of the pit in which it currently languishes. I don’t know whether Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has it in him to take such a suicidal step, to take the bull by the horns and proclaim the equality of all before the law. If he does have it in him, he will win himself a prominent place in the Pantheon of Russian history. If not…

I am a Russian and I miss my country, because I don’t see it! I don’t see a country of which I want to be proud. I see a crowd of unhappy, frustrated faces and people alienated and afraid of one another. I want to be proud of my country, and instead I am ashamed of it. When did I last feel any pride in Russia? I don’t remember! But I know for a fact that if the truth, the truth about the situation our people find themselves in, were to be shouted loud and clear to the whole world, I would feel even more pride than if our hockey team were to win gold at the Olympics.

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